As 11,112 souls filled the newly christened Barclays Center in Brooklyn for what would be its inaugural fight card, Erik Morales walked toward the ring, calm, serene, relaxed. Bigger bouts and louder crowds, dozens of title fights, paydays, spectacles, brawls and buckets of blood lay splayed behind him along the winding path of a career that started nearly 20 years ago with a boy of 17.
Sixty fights into his career, Morales was finally walking toward a night that was truly terrible. Somewhere in the shadowy corners of a dimly lit billion dollar arena a left hook was lurking that would cap the meaningful part of a brilliant career with finality.
Fighting 18 pounds north of arguably his best weight class, junior featherweight, and eight years past the first articles that appeared hinting at his decline — following his grueling third dust up with Marco Antonio Barerra in 2004 — Morales, for the first time truly looked like a man who had been through more ring wars than any in his era.
This fight — fight number 61 — came against Garcia, the hard-hitting Philadelphian junior welterweight who knocked out critical darling Amir Khan in four rounds this summer, and who had outpointed a determined Morales earlier in the spring in their first go around.
The undefeated Garcia flaunts quickness, power, and determination, all coalescing in his physical prime. Yet for all this he hasn’t been the sort of prizefighter that sets the imagination afire.
He doesn’t possess that singular trait that brands him as an entity — the blazing hand speed of a Gary Russell Jr., the explosiveness of an Adrian Broner, the dogged power of a Canelo Alvarez… but unlike those unbeaten contemporaries, he has fought, and for the most part knocked out, meaningful high level competition.
If there is a calling card for Garcia it may be that he isn’t afraid to put himself on the line and hardhat his way to constructing a resume rivaling any young titleholder in the sport today.
Just 24 years old, Garcia, 12 years Morales’ junior, looked tight before the fight. A bit of anxiety appeared to shadow his face and normally cheerful demeanor.
Across the way, Morales seemed oblivious to the thousands of eyes roving across him, unwavering in his quiet, prefight preparations.
The crowd had not long before witnessed the first title bout on Brooklyn soil in 81 years as Devon Alexander outpointed Randall Bailey in their welterweight showdown. Bailey’s feared power was left unspent, leaving nearly every bullet in the chamber, after firing off just 17 shots a round. The kickback from his paltry pea shooter output came in the form of rampant booing from the boisterous Brooklyn fight fans, equally aimed at the apathetic Alexander who nipped and tucked his way to a cosmetic win, but was unable to facelift his image as a boring fighter.
While a verbal retelling of the 1931 Brooklyn bout that last had a title on the line would likely have proven more attention-keeping than Alexander-Bailey, the next fight on the cards more than made up for it.
Peter Quillin and Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam, two unbeaten middleweights, showed everyone what a real clash of championship mettle is all about.
The fight really ignited when heavyweight cultural icon Mike Tyson lent a cameo appearance to round 4 by way of ringside P.A. interview that carried into the action. The champ’s words echoed through the gathered throngs and to the ears of Quillin who seemed to channel the mercurial “Kid Dynamite” and unleashed hell on the man across from him for the rest of the round.
Six knockdowns and eight rounds later, the final bell clanged. All six knockdowns had befell N’Dam, and yet his will and tenacious heart had kept him in the fight straight through. A remarkable fighter and performance, one that even in losing was sure to raise eyebrows and spur admiration from discerning boxing fans.
Quillin fulfilled much of the promise that those same fans have been waiting to see from the perennial middleweight prospect and young contender as he won his first title and did so in explosive, exciting fashion.
A third title bout was to ensue between Paulie Malignaggi and Pablo Cesar Cano. While a failure to make the welterweight on Cano’s part robbed the bout of its title implications, the fight itself turned out to be an intriguing style contrast sprinkled with high drama down the stretch as Malignaggi hit the deck in round 11 to put all sorts of outcomes readily possible.
The close decision went to “The Magic Man” Malignaggi and cleared the decks for this last bout of the evening — one more title bout for Brooklyn’s reentrance to boxing’s stage:
A classic crossroads showdown between youngster and old veteran.
Smattered throughout the audience sombrero-clad spectators lined up along upper causeways like arbiters of a great heritage of Mexican champions, straining to will their longtime warrior to one more night of greatness.
Bedecked in typical, iconic, plain white trunks, Morales looked largely unchanged — a little softer in the middle, that lankiness that engendered concussive knockouts at the lower weights still lingered, hidden now by a soft exterior.
He still had that inimitable face, as HBO Larry Merchant once opined, with its hawk’s nose, still that squared off slab of granite chin and lively eyes.
As the fight began he even had the old hunger, the old desire. But the shopworn body seemed unable to do what it had for so long.
The speed difference was evident, and expected. What was also apparent after just a round or two was that Eric Morales was little more than a shell of the fighter he had become renowned for being. Even in the dilapidated state, Morales threw salvos like always, landing a few impressive blows, but unable to sustain any real offense.
By the start of the 3rd round he looked like a man battling a heavy fever — tired, sweat dripping from his face, labored breathing. Nothing seemed to be effective. Garcia was too fast, reacted too easily and was throwing punishing body shots at Morales with regularity.
With a mostly ineffective attack, Morales seemed to become a little more desperate to make some inroads. He lunged with jabs to the body, launched an overhand right — modest success for a great warrior.
With 20 seconds left in the 3rd round, incredibly, already out of ideas, Morales pulled out his patented feint attack, something seen in virtually every one of his fights, but a wholly unique move. He tried it on Garcia… a jump forward, torso twisting as though to launch an overhand right, feinting it, and instead launching a left uppercut/hook hybrid.
That never failed to work. And when I say “never”… I’ve seen Morales fight dating back to the mid-90s. I’ve seen a few of his pre-American debut bouts. I’ve never seen that move not work.
And when Morales tried the move on Garcia, on this night, perhaps for the first time ever… it didn’t work. Not only did it not connect, it got countered before the left could even be thrown. Morales, chagrined, smiled at Garcia and shook his head a little. The look on Morales face was like that of someone who has just realized something that had been obvious to everyone else.
The Morales that we knew… that HE knew… was gone.
In another 10 seconds Garcia would land a right cross that first buckled Morales’ knees, then stiffened his legs. The strength from his legs cleaved away with the punch. Somehow he managed to stay up, and stumbled back, warily dodging Danny “Swift’s” arcing clean-up bombs that threatened to detonate across his chin and send him tumbling to the canvas.
The bell sounded for the round.
Morales hopped for a second towards the wrong corner, legs stiff, unable to bend and walk normal, before his men, corralled him to his own. He sat on the stool, his eyes slits. He looked like he was about to go to sleep right there between rounds.
Round 4, he was still off balance, but there was no quit. He still meagerly tried, but when they exchanged midway through the round, that Garcia left hook, the one that has been waiting for Morales, somewhere in the shadows, found his chin. It caught the Mexican great and spun him 180 degrees, frozen as he fell, stiff.
He went over backward, half on the ring apron, his head through the ropes. His arms went up over his head, and he splayed out prone, before he pulled himself back between the ropes, curled in on himself. The referee was over him to count. His corner man was in the ring to halt it.
Morales protested for a moment, but in a daze, and sat on the canvas as doctors and officials crowded around him.
Garcia energetically hopped on a ring rope and yelled in ecstasy towards the crowd, his joy-filled emotions pouring forth.
Morales has passed into legend now.
If after several dozen more fights Garcia could end up like Morales, a knockout victim of some young up-and-comer, yet have a rich tapestry of iconic bouts, title belts, rivalries, trilogies and match-ups, there is little doubt he would agree to it.
If you are good enough and lucky enough to ascend to the sport’s highest achievements, to be revered as a fistic God, then the tradeoff for those spoils is almost always a hard end — and a day where you must realize that the great warrior you once were no longer exists.
So while one fighter begins his summit to great heights, another has completed his journey.
To be sure, this emphatic victory over the legendary Tijuana boxer shines a final spotlight upon the Morales of boxing lore that walks the earth today. He truly is a legend now… existing only in memories, and tales of brutal violent nights, on eroding VHS tapes and tattered old posters of 60 odd fights.
Morales asked for just one more indulgence, tenderly: “I want to say bye bye in Tijuana, Mexico.”
If he hasn’t earned it, who ever has?